Thankful for Wet Feet

Day 703 – 1 February, 2017

Swelling black rain clouds hung low over our bush camp in Hwange National Park, yet our new Nomad Africa tour group was claiming seats in an open air jeep bound for a game drive. Liz, Emil, Elin, John, and I were the only remaining members from our original group. We even had a new guide and driver. Now instead of campers being the majority of the group, we were the minority. Our two lonely tents looked rather pathetic with the impending storm looming in the distance.

Our safari jeep had a canvas draped over the top, but the sides were wide open. Almost as soon as we drove out of the camp grounds, the skies opened and dumped buckets of water. Huge rivers of mud flowed on the dirt track. I bowed my head so the water would drip down the hood of my rain jacket instead of pelting me in the face. Unfortunately, there’s not much hope of spying wildlife when you can’t see through the driving rain.

Just when our hope was fading that this would be another disappointing excursion, the rain abruptly stopped and rays of sunlight started illuminating the landscape. The clouds all but disappeared and the sky was blue. Still, the bush was quiet except for a few birds, wildebeest and jackals. The guide demonstrated a traditional gummy plant that was used as an ingredient in soap. Rubbing a small amount of the sticky substance on your hands would elicit a lather and a pleasantly clean scent. Next we came upon a scattering of sun-bleached elephant bones that had clearly been there for years and our guide took this opportunity to get out of the vehicle and talk about elephant anatomy. Meanwhile, the rest of us were anxious to see some live animals.

So far we had been driving at least an hour and were growing a bit bored when straight ahead there was movement directly in the track in front of us. If you blinked you would have missed it, but I didn’t blink. A chill down my spine I knew I had just seen a leopard in the road. Almost as if she was a ghost, she completely disappeared into the undergrowth beneath a tree. Slowly, quietly, we coasted closer until we were directly next to the tree. The thickness of the foliage produced a shadow on the ground, but if you knelt down just far enough you could see she was right there watching us. We were no more than two meters away, separated by brambles and thorns. At first, she seemed nervous that the slightest movement would send her sprinting away, but finally she relaxed as if she was prepared to stay put until we drove away. Knowing she was there and so close, but we could still barely see her was a reminder of how many creatures we probably miss on an average game drive. They are excellent camouflage artists.

Can you see the super close-up of the leopard?

A few minutes later a caravan of more safari jeeps were following us down the track and comically, our guide told us to pretend as if we were looking at birds. The guide driving behind our jeep asked if we saw anything and our guide said, “no, mate, it’s quiet today.” Reluctantly, we drove on, hoping the train of 4 more jeeps would follow us and leave our leopard alone so that we could return and have her all to ourselves. I found this amusing and a little exciting. Guides are usually fraternal and willing to share tips with each other, but in this case, four loads of Chinese tourists would definitely frighten our leopard so we successfully led them away. Nothing to see here!

After driving around in a big arc, we returned to the same spot and even though the beautiful cat was still there, the shadows had grown longer and it was almost impossible to distinguish her spots in the dark. Our safari was drawing to a close so it was time to start the journey back toward camp. Seeing the leopard, even if only for a minute, had reinvigorated our lethargic tour and we were boisterously recounting her dart into the bush and sharing the one or two photos that we had snapped in her brief visibility. I was staring straight ahead, smiling to myself, when I saw them. I would have thought it to be impossible if I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes. What luck!!! A lioness and three tiny cubs casually sauntered in the road. She was carrying one in her mouth and the other two followed closely behind. In contrast to the jittery leopard, this confident lioness stopped, turned to look at us, and calmly continued on her way. We trailed her at a slow pace, but she didn’t seem to be bothered by us at all. A group of impala saw her coming and they anxiously kept a fair distance, but she was with her babies; this was not a hunting posture. From my experience on nine safaris so far, I had learned that lions and leopard, in particular, don’t like to stay in the grass after a rain for the uncomfortable sensation of having wet feet so our luck of seeing all these beautiful felines in the road, was quite possibly because of the rain.

For about 200 meters, we watched her. Occasionally, she would stop to set down the cub in her mouth, readjust her grip, and pick it up again. These cubs were young enough that our guide predicted she was bringing them to introduce to the pride for the first time. When lion cubs our born, the lioness will keep them isolated from the rest of the pride until they are old enough to withstand the roughhousing of their cousins, usually about 1-2 months. There was a chance she would lead us directly to the rest of the pride. A rare ritual that our guide confessed he had never witnessed before, we watched our lioness set her cub down for the last time. As if by a telepathic cue, the three cubs darted into the long grass and were gone, while our lioness stood her ground staring down several more lionesses and a few older cubs. There was obvious tension until one of the new females moved toward the grass in the same direction the new cubs had just disappeared. The new mother seemed hopeful, yet ready to defend her cubs if it came to that. This introduction behavior does not always go smoothly. What happened next, we can only guess. All of the lions, big and small, moved into the grass out of view, but we could hear them playfully chuffing and growling a non-threatening greeting. This would be a happy reunion after all.

Back at camp, a few members of our group had heard that a family of giraffe were quietly grazing just outside of the campground perimeter fence. I stayed behind for a shower and a quick rest before dinner so I wasn’t there…but you know how when you’re with the same people for days on end and there’s that one that treads on the line between partially endearing and partially annoying beyond words? Liz had learned a new trick to take close-up photos using her smart phone and binoculars and had reasonable success most of the time. Unfortunately, this once, with her binoculars and phone completely lined up for the perfect photo of a grazing giraffe, John announced, “I have to pee,” and turned to his left to walk away. Thus, John did not pass GO when he leaped right over that theoretical line into gritting teeth and eye rolls for the remainder of the week. The giraffe also does not seem amused.

The Smoke That Thunders

Day 701 – 30 January, 2017

Victoria Falls is one of the great wonders of the natural world. It’s approximately 1700 meters wide and up to 108 meters tall, twice the height and one and half times the width of Niagara Falls. During peak flood season, when up to 10.5 million liters of water flow per second, the massive quantity of water flowing through the falls can cause a spray that looks like a heavy blanket of smoke. Depending on which way the wind blows, it can create weather on either side of the border it spans from Zimbabwe to Zambia.

After a tedious but uneventful border crossing from Botswana and a slow slog through traffic in Zimbabwe, we knew we were approaching Victoria Falls for the thundering mist you could see from miles away. It looked like a rain cloud, swollen with an isolated summer deluge, yet it had a wispy ethereal quality to it that resembled billowing smoke. It wasn’t until our truck was parked and we began walking to the park entrance that we could hear the rumble of millions of liters of water from the Zambezi River, cascading into the Batoka Gorge below.

Forewarned about the spray, we donned various degrees of rain gear. The air was humid and still so the addition of a non-breathable rain jacket and waterproof pants created something of a sauna next to my body, but I was most concerned about my phone (i.e., my camera). I tucked it inside a plastic bag that I reserved just for these occasions and thought, can it really be that bad?

The Zimbabwe side of the falls spans 75% of the full chasm and has 16 different viewpoints. There is a well-maintained path with (some) safety buffers and signage for ominous warnings of impending death, but what I remember most of all is the demonstrable power of that much water. An impala grazed only meters from the waterfalls first viewpoint, a reminder that we were still in wild Africa.

To see the falls up close is nearly indescribable. You can feel it inside you, vibrating from your core all the way to your fingertips. It smelled like rain and was so loud and prepossessing it refused to let you ignore its presence. If a waterfall can have a personality, this one was Beyoncé. I tried to allow my eyes to follow a drop of water from the precipice all the way down and was, in turn, becoming hypnotized by it.

Most of our group stayed together, taking photos, and posing for selfies. It became increasingly obvious that my flimsy plastic bag was no match for the torrents of this waterfall so I would quickly take out my phone, snap some pictures in a full panic, before tucking it back in the bag dripping wet. A few others that were better prepared with waterproof cameras saved the day. By the 16th viewpoint, looking back on the bridge that connects Zimbabwe to Zambia, Tomas noticed that both his phone and camera were toast. Victoria Falls had taken a couple of casualties, after all.

I love this one.

That night, my Nomad Africa friends shared a fancy dinner at a touristy Vic Falls resort, complete with traditional dancing and a gluttonous buffet. It was times like these that I hated tour groups. This was my third in two years of travel and while it is easy to forget that I’m not like the others when we are all enjoying the sight of an elephant or a thunderous waterfall, I’m harshly reminded about this difference when we are faced with paying more than $25 for a single meal. Perhaps hard to relate for some of my readers, but a backpacker simply does not do that. While I won’t decry the merits of a good meal, $25 for ‘authentic’ tourist food was not part of my budget. If this had been a regular occurrence, this trip would not have been possible, I assure you. I reluctantly went and ordered a la carte because I did enjoy the company of my fellow travelers, and because I knew that soon I would be with backpackers again who would have chastised me for such a gross blowing of resources.

Part of the reason for the overpriced meal compared to other cities in Africa I had visited was because of hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. Their currency, the Zimbabwean Dollar, ceased being the official currency in 2009 where now they favor the US dollar. When the Zimbabwe Dollar was first introduced, it was intended to be at par with the USD, but after an ineffective economic strategy, it eventually became one of the lowest valued currencies in the world. By the time the currency was to be demonetized at the end of 2008, the inflation rate was 80 billion%. Fathom that for a second… Hawkers would stand on street corners trying to sell $100 trillion bank notes as souvenirs. The absurdity of it was also quite sad.

The following day everyone branched off into different directions. It was our official last day as a group, but it was a free day to further explore the falls. A few people went to Zambia to meet our driver, Doc, and practice boxing with him. Others went bungee jumping or walking with lions. The water at the falls was too intense and too high for some of the more daredevil activities, like taking a dip in the Devils Pools or whitewater rafting in the river itself. Tomas, Liz, and I had obtained multi-entry visas so that we could go to Zambia and return the same day. We walked from our hotel, first stamping out in Zimbabwe and then walking over the scenic bridge to the Zambia side. Most everything seemed the same – same trucks yielding the same black exhaust, same somber faces carrying the same yellow jugs of water, same baboons performing the same lascivious mating dance, and the same thunderous clammer from the world’s biggest waterfall.

The intention was for Tomas, Liz, and I to walk across the Knife Edge Bridge at the top of the falls and down to the Boiling Pot, the deep pools where the water has carved a protected swimming hole. During the season of low water, tourists can take a guided hike to swim in the Boiling Pot, but in early February, the water was too high and too unpredictable and all guided hikes had been suspended. A troop of baboons greeted us at the entrance to the trail, refusing to yield the path. They were grunting which made Tomas and Liz uneasy, but I recognized it as the sound they make when communicating with their babies. I guess I’ve learned some specifically useful(less) information on this odyssey. If you ever encounter a troop of baboons, I’m your girl! We gingerly stepped around them, while they presumably grunted to their babies that no, we didn’t seem to have any food so that they should just leave us alone.

It was a steep walk down to the Boiling Pot and seeing the churning, frothing water at the bottom, it was a bit inconceivable that people would actually go swimming there. But then again, it was equally hard to imagine the waterfall running almost dry only three months earlier. We sat near the boulders at the bottom with an unobscured view of the Victoria Falls Bridge that we had earlier crossed when entering Zambia. With no warning, it appeared that someone was falling from the bridge before seconds later rebounding back into the mist. The bungee jump! This is when we remembered that Emil had planned to bungee that day so we watched a few more jumpers propel themselves downward, thinking perhaps that each one was him.

The walk back up from the Boiling Pot was sticky and humid; my hair plastered to the back of my neck and my skin flushed pink from heat exhaustion. There was a small rest area at the entrance to the remaining hiking trails and it appeared people were preparing for battle, either that or preparing for a torrential rainstorm. Raincoats, ponchos, galoshes, and dry sacks were either coming off or going on, depending on the direction of the hikers. It was obvious from those that were returning from the bridge that the gear was not an overreaction, but we were still too hot from our previous hike to throw on another layer of clothing yet. We wanted to wait until we actually needed our rain jackets, but the decision was made for us in only a few meters from the trailhead.

The Zambia viewpoints lie closer to the falls than on the Zimbabwe side so were almost immediately soaked to the bone. Walking across Knife Edge Bridge seemed as if we were walking through the waterfall itself. I gave up trying to protect my head from the shower; in fact, the cool water was a welcome relief as it streamed down my back inside my jacket. For someone who had grown quite tiresome of waterfalls earlier in my travels, this one took the term ‘natural wonder’ to a whole new level.

And we weren’t done yet. Back across the border in Zimbabwe, Tomas and I were booked to take a 12 minute helicopter ride and get an aerial view. We had originally been scheduled for an early morning helicopter and even gone so far as the safety briefing and takeoff before turning around 3 minutes into the flight, citing the reason as unsafe weather conditions. We were rescheduled for an afternoon flight and I must say that the weather conditions seemed to be exactly the same this time when we took off with 4 additional passengers and began circling the waterfall. You would think that viewing Victoria Falls from so many different angles we had seen enough, but nothing really compares to that bird’s eye perspective. It’s difficult to fathom the size until you see it from air.

Thoroughly satiated with nature’s beauty, it was time to relax. Tomas was officially done with the tour, while Liz and I and a few others would be continuing for the second leg back to Johannesburg through Zimbabwe. He had booked a high-end luxury resort for his last night and had invited me for an afternoon at the pool. The resort was only a few kilometers from town, but it was surrounded by pristine African bush. From the pool deck, we could see zebra, ostrich, wart hogs, and even a few giraffe grazing from the top branches of acacia trees. It was pure magic and for a moment, you could glimpse what this panorama may have been like before resorts and helicopters and $100 trillion bank notes.